Chasing the dragon: the 19th-century craze for opium made a fortune for many adventurers. Image: William Douglas Almond/ Private Collection / © Look And Learn / Illustrated Papers Collection / Bridgeman Images
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Amitav Ghosh concludes his Opium War trilogy in brilliant, ramshackle style

Amitav Ghosh’s new novel, Flood of Fire, takes you to the end of its exploring, only to hint that the story is just beginning.

Flood of Fire
Amitav Ghosh
John Murray, 624pp, £20

The most audacious moment in Amitav Ghosh’s new novel, Flood of Fire, ­happens in the final sentence. After 600 pages, Ghosh refers to “this telling” as being “as yet scarcely begun”. Is he sham-bragging about how much he has already written or signalling that he is just getting started? Whether or not Ghosh chooses to explore still more of the world that he has revealed in the unabashedly baggy Ibis trilogy – a world of 19th-century war- and money- and love-making, set in and across India and China, a world full of warriors, widows, addicts and hustlers, all connected to each other by their time on ships that are otherwise freighted with opium – his latest effort forms a fit conclusion to an enterprise that has stretched across nearly 2,000 pages.

Many of the characters and plotlines in Flood of Fire first appeared in Sea of Poppies, which followed the lives of people from various stations and parts of the world brought together on a ship, the Ibis, making its way across a rough Indian Ocean to Mauritius in 1838. That novel’s personal and historical situations developed, with new characters coming into the mix, in River of Smoke, in which the Ibis and two other ships are imperilled by a cyclone that sweeps across the Bay of Bengal just as tensions between Britain and China over the opium trade and larger economic dealings intensify to the point of likely war. In the final book of the trilogy, Ghosh writes about individuals fully caught up in the First Opium War (1839-42) as yet another ship, the Hind, sails from India to China, again with a motley cast, some seeking answers to questions created by the events of earlier books, others keen for money and adventure.

There’s much of both to be had, now that Britain has decided to send a military force to China to secure a more stable and favourable position for its trade interests, which are mostly about Englishmen getting rich using two Indian commodities in great demand in China: opium and indentured workers. This imperial gambit culminates in the claiming of Hong Kong for the Crown, but not before much blood is spilled by the Indian and Chinese soldiers fighting each other along the coastline at the behest of their respective overlords. “This is the road to glory,” reads a sign that a British soldier scrawls and puts up alongside the Union Jack, with gunpowder-scorched corpses strewn everywhere below.

Graphic and gripping, the novel’s extended and close-up treatment of battles, framed by grand pageant sequences of warships leaving various harbours, is interleaved with a vertiginous coming together of characters and plotlines from elsewhere in the trilogy, whether in a convenient chance encounter aboard a ship, or the result of hard determination to seek love or vengeance, to offer help or seek it. Meanwhile, ideas and arguments relating to the state regulation of the drug trade, to China’s ambiguous emergence as a player in the global economy and to wild western dreams of lucrative civilising missions in distant lands invest these 19th-century renderings with immediate, 21st-century relevance.

To get to all of this, however, requires patience. Ghosh spends the first 200 pages unpacking the situations of four characters in particular: Shireen, the Parsi widow of an opium merchant; Kesri, a brave and loyal low-born colonial soldier whose sister disappeared following a bad marriage; Neel, a fallen Indian nobleman now chronicling the political situation from China; and Zachary, a young American on the make who has survived misadventures and even criminal charges related to his first voyage on the Ibis and is now, as ever, keen to try again for money and love, roughly in that order.

Ghosh eventually moves all of these characters (save Neel) aboard the Hind and sends them to China. He then brings off a multi-part denouement that is at once personal and historical, with more than a few freighted observations about the Ibis along the way: “It has tied us all together in strange ways, ne?” These references may come off as unnecessarily self-indulgent to some readers, as will the extended opening segment of Flood of Fire.

But that is reading this work the wrong way. Ghosh wants you to take your time and get lost in the world he has conjured, which is very much helped along by his writing in a chutney of 19th-century English and Hindi and other languages, constantly sliding between decorousness and technical terminology, assorted pidgin and straight-up gutter slang. “It’s my turn now, to bajow your ganta,” the matronly Mrs Burnham tells Zachary in the midst of a love affair that is only initially comical. Don’t bother googling the phrase. Likewise, use your imagination to figure out what “chewing on a chichky” involves. Ghosh provides plenty of context, not to say an endless array of equally colourful synonyms, whether about sex or about war, money and drugs, the trilogy’s main preoccupations. This is all intended to keep you happily confined to the pages of this brilliantly ramshackle novel, which Ghosh declares “the climactic tamam-shud to this chronicle”, before suggesting that the story is really just beginning.

Randy Boyagoda’s latest novel is “Beggar’s Feast” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories